The kids are all right.

I recently had the pleasure of being contacted by a teacher who let me know that he works with a group of students in a history club, in which said students did research and presentations about different aspects and types of history. One of his groups focused on historical fiction, and they wanted to let me know that they had found a certain page here at Citizen Reader useful for their research: 

Now, that's a little embarrassing for me, because if you click on that link, the first paragraph is all about the historical fiction series Poldark (by Winston Graham) and how much I love Poldark and how, really, if I could, I would spend most of my time doing nothing but re-reading the Poldark series and watching all the British TV programs based on it. I do, in fact, have a little Poldark addiction.

But still, if that page was helpful to anyone, anywhere, I am very glad about that!

This charming teacher went on to say that his equally-charming-sounding students wondered if I would also share a helpful page about researching and writing your own historical fiction, and of course my answer to that is YES, because I love well-written historical fiction and want people to write more of it. And of course, if someone comes along and decides to write fan fiction or sequels to the Poldark series, well, I won't complain about that at all. Here is the link (which I will also add to the sidebar, over in "Fabo Book Blogs").

Philip, Megan, thank you so much for your email, and for reading, and for doing research work to learn more about what you love. Research is awesome. You don't know how much it cheered me up to hear from you.

Wherever You Go, Just Take Enough Books.

Last weekend I spent a night at my mom's house, as she is getting older and sometimes needs a little additional help.

It actually turned out to be kind of a nice night without the Internet (she doesn't have it at her house) and TV (which I didn't want to watch because I didn't want to be too noisy). Luckily I had planned accordingly and taken enough books. What was in my travel bag?

Edward Snowden's memoir Permanent Record, which I have read before but wanted to read again because, hello, Edward Snowden, I could read about Edward Snowden for a thousand hours and still not get bored.

Terry Brooks's The Elfstones of Shannara, because even us nonfiction kids need a little fantasy every now and then, and it's a good nostalgia read, since I haven't read any Terry Brooks since I was about twelve.

Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities, because I'm reading it for background info for a novel project I'm working on, and might I just say, goddamn, Jane Jacobs even makes sociological writing interesting.

Kathy Aarons's Truffled to Death: A Chocolate Covered Mystery, because sometimes lately I just need a cozy mystery.

The essay collection Table Talk from The Threepenny Review, because I just subscribed to The Threepenny Review in print and have really been enjoying the short essays I find there. (And, let's face it, I am trying to learn how to write essays because I had a lot of essay rejections this year and I'm desperate to know what I'm doing wrong.)

Daniel Berrigan's Essential Writings, because the actor John Cusack responded to me at Twitter and suggested I read Berrigan and also Noam Chomsky. And when Lloyd Dobler talks, friends, I LISTEN.

Last but not least: Robert Jackall's Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, because I want to live blog reading this bad boy next year. I'm ten pages in and it has basically explained America to me.

I also wrote in my journal and did some other work and a few hours after she first went to bed my mom woke up and had kind of a surreal conversation with me, in which I learned a few details about my own birth.

Wild times in CR Land. My hope for you this holiday season is that, wherever you are, you have enough books.*

*In other news, title links now go to my affiliate store at; anything you buy there after entering the site through these links sends a small percentage of the purchase price my way. Thank you!

Should The Hunger Games series be messing with my middle-aged mind this much?

Hunger gamesRemember when The Hunger Games trilogy was big?

Yeah, me neither. The first book in the series came out back in 2008 and it was right about then that I was busy having an awful surgery, trying to create a freelance career, and eventually having my first little CRjr. I was aware of Suzanne Collins's three popular YA books (Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay) but I didn't pay much attention. I think I read the first one, was underwhelmed, and never finished the series.

So why all of a sudden I had the urge to watch the movies that were made from the book, I couldn't tell you.

I used to love movies (as only a person who started college as a film major can) and still do most of my thinking in mental movie memes. (Here's an example: Patrick Swayze as bar bouncer Dalton in the 1989 cult classic Road House: "Be nice. Be nice until it's time to not be nice." I think this a lot, because people annoy me a lot, and I have to remind myself to be nice until it's time to not be nice, which mainly for me means giving myself permission to simply leave any situation where people are annoying me. I'm no Patrick Swayze.)

Eventually TV (my first crush), particularly British TV, supplanted movies in my heart, so for years I have watched only TV series when I've had the time to watch anything at all, what with the copious amounts of time I spend reading and also trying and failing to make my own living. But lately I have been in the mood for movies. So I thought, well, what do I want to see?

And for some reason I pulled The Hunger Games trilogy (although they made the three books into four movies) out of thin air.

The movies are awful. No kidding. Simplistic in story, bare-bones in character development and dialogue, hard to see as most of the plot seemed to be set in the dark, no chemistry between the lead actors (and, I ask you, how do you throw together beautiful people like Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth and STILL have no chemistry?), glacial pace. Mr. CR is not generally a man who needs his movies (or his anything, frankly) to be "quickly paced," and even he kept saying, "Are these movies hundreds of hours long or does it just feel like they are?" And yet, I kept watching them. And I kept watching for one reason:

Peeta Mellark.

If you don't know the story, I'll try to nutshell it without giving away any spoilers, although I suppose this series is so old that anyone who cares has already seen it/read it/knows the ending. In a futuristic America known as "Panem," the country is controlled by the President in the affluent Capitol, while the rest of Panem is split into 12 districts that basically provide what the Capitol and its citizens require (and suffer greatly to do so). Each year, two "tributes" are chosen from each district--one male and one female--and all twenty-four tributes play against each other in the Hunger Games, until one victor kills the other 23 and is rewarded with getting to remain alive. The main characters are Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen-year-old from District 12, who volunteers to fight in the place of her sister Primrose, who was actually selected for the 74th annual Hunger Games. Another of Katniss's close friends, Gale, a slightly older boy, is also in the running, but escapes when Peeta Mellark is chosen.

Then Katniss and Peeta are taken to the Capitol, where they fight in the Hunger Games, and manage to change the narrative of what happens there. In the subsequent books, the 12 districts start to rebel against the Capitol, and Katniss, Gale, and Peeta all have their separate roles to play in that story.

Classic dystopia stuff, and classic love triangle, as Katniss eventually finds she has feelings for both Peeta and Gale.

But here's where the narrative takes a slight turn. Gale, a friend of Katniss's who hunts and gathers food with her, is a stereotypical strong, good-looking Alpha Male (with his softer side; he does pledge to protect Katniss's family while she is gone and if she is killed), while Peeta is presented as somewhat of a non-entity whose main characteristic is that he has noticed Katniss since they were both young, and has grown to love her.

So, anyway, the movies were so bad that I just went to the library and got the three books and plowed through those. And here's what I learned about these characters:

I'm in love with Peeta Mellark.

Peeta doesn't exist just to be in love with Katniss (although sometimes the movies seem to present it that way). He's good with words and he's clearly very clever, coming up with his own wily (and non-violent) plans to keep himself and Katniss alive. He's understanding of Katniss's independence, and even though it's easy for him to be committed to their "doomed lovers" narrative, because he actually does love her, he is ready to step aside in case she chooses Gale and--get this--he is prepared to remain friends with her if that's what she prefers. He does everything he can to stay alive and win the games, while also going out of his way to NOT kill other tributes; he bakes; he holds Katniss to help her through her nightmares when she asks.

Everything I read about today's dating scene at Medium (I really have to stop reading dating/relationship articles on Medium, which is big among millennials and tech bros) indicates there are not many Peetas in today's world.

So here I am, going through my old-lady life of raising kids and cooking meals and freelancing, and all the while I do it I'm thinking over the Hunger Games and Peeta Mellark.

Even a few years ago I don't think I would have given Peeta Mellark this much thought. But the more I read about men and women interacting with one another, and the more I see and hear out in the world, the more I think we really need to encourage men in particular to explore new ways of being. And that's why I'm so grateful for Peeta Mellark as a character.

Now on to the real question. Get your librarian/reader thinking caps on and tell me: Any other series, YA or otherwise, featuring male characters who are sensitive, intelligent, kind, and still end up succeeding/surviving/winning in their own way? Let's face it. Those are the kinds of books I want to give the CRjrs. Subliminal programming at its best: Don't be a bro, kids. Be a Peeta. (Or, as Lil Taylor's Corey character in Say Anything said to John Cusack's Lloyd Dobler, "No. Don't be a guy. The world is full of guys. Be a man." See? Movie memes, all day long.)

Happy COVID Autumn.

I used to enjoy living in Wisconsin. But it's not been the most peaceful of places just now.

I don't have any answers or any ideas and I'm actually kind of tired of listening to people who think they do. So, it's back to avoidance of life through reading, and friends, I EXCEL at that sport.

So what I have been reading?

First up: the Agatha Raisin cozy mystery series by M.C. Beaton. I was never really into Beaton before now, but then I watched the fantastic series Agatha Raisin, starring the always-underappreciated Ashley Jensen.

The mysteries are terrible, beyond simplistic, but I LOVE Ashley Jensen as Agatha Raisin, and it turns out in the books that I just love Agatha Raisin for all her middle-aged prickliness (which hides a soft gooey center of kindness and insecurity). I'm in the early part of the series still, before Beaton started to phone them in (I've read a few later entries and yes, they get a little more slapdash), so that's good stuff.

I also polished off a few illustrated biographies/histories by an author named Ted Rall, who I really enjoy. Previously I have read his biography of Edward Snowden*, titled simply Snowden, but this month I tackled Francis: The People's Pope and Political Suicide: The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party, which was a fantastic American history book no matter what your politics.** I would highly recommend Ted Rall, and, as a special treat for these troubled, disjointed times, they are very quick reads.

Last but not least, for most of the summer I dipped into and out of Paula vW. Dáil's superlative Hard Living in America's Heartland: Rural Poverty in the 21st Century Midwest, which, no kidding, is a meaty buy for your library or for you at $29.95. If you are at all confused about what it's like living in rural America today, this book will lay it out for you with research, personal interviews, and economic numbers that will make a lot of things very, very clear. I'm from the rural Midwest, and I loved this book for the many ways it was right on, and for the many ways it pointed out how rural people who know things are continually screwed in our country, and also the pros and cons of their rural communities (and how they live within them). It's not easy to find a scholarly book that isn't condescending, but this one isn't, and I was endlessly grateful for that. I won't lie--it can get dry--but wow, I sure kept reading it. I would highly recommend it.

So. What have YOU been reading?

*The only piece of news I've seen for months that really made me happy was this one: Edward Snowden has been given permanent residency in Russia. I'm sad because this means I'll probably never be able to vote for him for president, but I can also stop worrying every three years (that was how often they had been renewing his visa or whatever he had for staying there) that he'll be returned to this country and executed just for being a decent, thinking human being.

**Okay, Republicans probably won't like it, but I'm a Nothing (politically, socially, professionally) and I enjoyed it.

A fun fiction wintertime read: An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good.

I'm not sure where I heard about it, but I just picked up Helene Tursten's tiny little An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good, a collection of linked short stories about feisty octogenarian Maud.

It's dark and the protagonist Maud is mostly unlikable, but, God love her, you're not going to push her around. To tell you any more than that would be to include spoilers, and I'm not going to do that. But if you're looking for a quick, fun fiction read, you might want to try this one.

You can find a more comprehensive review here.

My kingdom for some good chick lit reads.

I really miss good "chick lit" novels.

I know, I'm of an age now where I'm supposed to enjoy Women's Fiction. But I DO NOT ENJOY Women's Fiction. (Unless it's by Anne Tyler.) I don't know why this is. Perhaps because I need fiction to take me away from the world, and reading Women's Fiction makes me feel like I'm trapped in small talk at our school's Parent Teacher Organization. I do not really need any more of that.

Two cases in point: I tried to read Susan Gloss's novel The Curiosities, and I just got about thirty pages in to Kelly Harms's The Overdue Life of Amy Byler.* I did not enjoy either of them. These are not bad books, and I actually remember reading and liking Susan Gloss's first novel Vintage. But these books are not for me.

So here's what I need: suggestions for some good chick lit. (You know, Bridget Jones's Diary, etc.) Failing that, I need some suggestions for good novels that are not "literary" (read: by a man who talks obsessively about masturbation or that critics think write women characters very well: I'm looking at you, Sam Lipsyte and Nickolas Butler) but are also NOT Women's Fiction in any way, shape, or form.

Thank you for any suggestions!

*I got a total laugh out of the Kirkus review of this book, particularly this line: "Amy heads off to New York, where she delivers a presentation at a library educators’ conference and has first-date sex with "hot librarian" Daniel Seong-Eason." I think if you'd ever been to a library conference (and I have) you'd laugh at every part of that sentence. But maybe that's just me.

Mysteries for the Anglophile.

I continue to be in a bit of a strange reading mood, re-reading some old nonfiction favorites and reading more fiction than I do usually. I think I'm just tired, and I need to read things that aren't going to wear me out further (although Mr. CR points out that re-reading Alice Sebold's memoir Lucky, about the experience of her rape and the trial of her rapist, is not exactly "light" reading).

I don't typically read a lot of mysteries, but one series of historical (Victorian, to be exact) mysteries I have always enjoyed are Charles Finch's "Charles Lenox Mysteries." So in my relaxed reading state, I wondered, has Charles Finch written any new Lenox mysteries? And yes he has, since I last read one: titled The Inheritance.*

I enjoyed this one because it included more exposition of Lenox's relationships with his co-workers (fellow detectives Polly Buchanan and John Dallington, who have their own little romance intrigue going on); his family, including his wife Jane Lenox (one of my favorite characters); and, in this book, a childhood friend of his. It's a nice serviceable little mystery, and it will definitely appeal to Anglophiles of all kinds. Get yourself a cuppa and enjoy.

*I totally disagree with this review, by the way, but it does provide a basic plot synopsis.

Really teeny tiny review: Anne Tyler's Clock Dance.

I'll say this for Anne Tyler: even when she's phoning them in (and Clock Dance feels just a bit phoned in, although it is still quite good), I still really like her writing. You can read a book of hers about families and people and interpersonal relationships, and when you're done, you don't feel depressed and you don't feel like there's no point. And that's rare in modern fiction.

Free book for you...if you like reading chick lit!

The Natural Sequel CoverHi!

So good to be back. In honor of a new year of blogging (yes, I know it's December, but in January I will still be busy digesting too many big meals, and will still be exhausted from trying to make more room in the house for the new toys the CRjrs inevitably score over the holidays, to get excited about the new year), I'd like to give you a little thank-you gift for reading Citizen Reader.

Don't get too excited: it's just a PDF file of a novel I wrote for fun. Of course I had dreams of making it a publishing and paying proposition, but I can't get a literary agent interested and I am not of the type of personality that can self-publish a novel. I did look into that, but it turns out that self-publishing is a ton of work, what with deciding which service to use, formatting, making the cover, etc.

And if there's one thing I'm definitely not interested in, it's more work.

On the other hand, I did write the whole thing and I'd be beyond tickled if anyone wanted to read it (and--if you're so inclined--comment on ways in which I could improve it).

Enough already. What's it about? Here's the jacket copy I wrote:

"Eight years ago, everyone had advice for Fran about her boyfriend, Joe. Snap him up, her mother said. Lock him down, her friends said. Marry me, he said.

But who always wants to be told what to do?

The Natural Sequel is a modern twist on Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion, featuring a heroine who wants to be left alone to make her own decisions."

So, there's the cover I made at the right side. I know: not great. I'm no graphic designer and I didn't want to take any more time with it (see: "not interested in more work" caveat above.) And here's the link to a PDF of the book. I'm hoping you'll get some "you time" over the holiday season, and I'd be touched beyond all reason if you'd like to spend a bit of your you time relaxing with my chick lit novel. Happy holidays!

The Natural Sequel (PDF file).

Reading while not paying attention.

I'm having a very odd autumn. I'm reading a lot, but I can't say I'm enjoying a whole lot of what I'm reading, or paying too much attention to it. I feel like I'm skimming a lot of books, and my feeling while reading them is, "yeah yeah, been there, done that."

IrbyTake Samantha Irby's essay collection We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. Irby blogs at bitches gotta eat, and I've been seeing her book (and its eye-catching cover) get a lot of attention. I did read the whole thing (it's a quick read) and laughed in parts, but after a while I thought, yeah, okay, LOL, I don't mind all the caps, but I GET IT NOW SO THAT'S ENOUGH KTHANKS. I will give her this: she'll tell you anything, and I like memoirists who do that. Take this scene, when she tries to spread her father's cremains in Nashville, on a trip with her girlfriend:

"As the better part of the cremains shook loose from where they had settled, a huge gust of wind came from the east. OF FUCKING COURSE.

Mavis's face was like Munch's Scream painting, all horrified wide eyes and open mouth, as I turned toward her with my dead father's charred bones and fingernails splattered across my face and crackling between my teeth. It was like coming home from a day at the beach, except replace 'sand' with 'gritty Sam Irby [her father] penis and entrails' lining my nostrils and in between my toes." (p. 183.)

And then there was the very different Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm, by Sarah Menkedick. This is a memoir about a woman who spent most of her life traveling, until she settled down on her parents' land in Ohio and became pregnant with her first child. Normally I eat that sort of thing up with a spoon (being interested in both farms and pregnancy) but this one didn't do much for me, even as I kept reading it:

"In my twenties, I flung myself into the world. I leapfrogged across continents, hungering for experience and proof of my own wildness. I taught English to recalcitrant teenagers on Reunion Island, picked grapes in France, witnessed a revolution in Mexico. To be aware was to be outside, under Mongolian skies and in bantam seaside bars, far-flung places where every conversation and scent prickled with exceptionality." (p. 4.)

The writing is fine and the subject is fine but while I was reading all I could think was "blah blah blah you travel it's all very exotic and now you're going to have a baby and connect with the Earth uh huh..."

I know. I'm a terrible person. You're really not going to like this next story.

BookshopLast week I also read a lovely light little novel titled How to Find Love in a Bookshop, by Veronica Henry. It's a nice little chick lit-ish romance, it's set in a bookshop, it's further set in Great Britain, and it's got several love stories that get happy resolutions. All of those things should have meant I should have been purring with happiness as I read it. And yet I wasn't. In fact part of me was distinctly thinking, as I said to Mr. CR, "Oh brother, go live your happy little love lives, bleah." Part of it was jealousy that the main character owned a bookshop and made it a profitable concern by the end of the book. I'm very jealous of that.

So there you have it. Don't send any cheerful, nice, gentle, earth-mothery, or lovey books my way this autumn. I won't be fair to them.

Matthew Klam's novel "Who Is Rich?"

Okay, I need some help from you. The next time you see me reference a novel, by a man, that reviewers say does a good job of portraying women, you have to politely remind me NOT TO READ IT, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT'S HOLY.

Who is richSo all summer I saw positive reviews for Matthew Klam's new novel Who Is Rich? And once again, just as I did for Nickolas Butler's appalling novel Shotgun Lovesongs, I fell for it. Why, I don't know. Am I this needy for a male author who writes literary fiction who a) doesn't lovingly detail masturbation (I'm looking at you, Sam Lipsyte) and b) seems like he might actually like women and want to portray them as actual people? Well, yes, I am.

But I'm going to get over it now. That's where you come in, what with the telling me not to read literary fiction by men anymore.

Here's the story: Forty-something cartoonist/magazine illustrator Rich Fischer leaves his wife and two young children every year to teach at an arts conference. He's in his midlife crisis, of course: he's struggling a bit in his marriage, he's sleep-deprived because he's got young kids, the buzz surrounding his published memoir/graphic novel/comic is long gone and he feels like a has-been at the conference. But this year, he has the anticipation of continuing an affair with one of the conference's students (that began the previous year), a married mother of three who despises her rich husband and yet seems fully at home in her one-percenter lifestyle and philanthropic activities. What's a poor schlub who loves his wife and kids and yet really wants to bang another woman supposed to do?

And that's it. That's literally it. It goes on for 300 pages like that, and yes, I read the whole thing, because I am an idiot, and at first I thought it might get better, and then I just couldn't believe that nothing else was going to happen.* And yes, I did try to skip to the end and just get some closure, but because this is literary fiction, there really wasn't any closure.

I don't want to be too hard on this guy. For one thing, it took him fifteen years to produce this book after getting a lot of press for his first book, so that must have been a bit nerve-wracking. For another, I really had no business reading this book, and I certainly shouldn't have stuck with it as long as I did. (I shouldn't even have started: with blurbs from Curtis Sittenfeld and Lorrie Moore, two of my least favorite female authors ever, I should have known to run screaming.)

As Albert Brooks once said in Broadcast News, I grant you everything. But GIVE ME THIS: stop referring to women characters who exist only as the wronged (or harpy) wife or the new fuck interest as "fully realized, whole, equals." That one's on you, reviewers, not the author.

So anyway. Here's your flavor of the book, just so you can see what I had to put up with:

"It seemed the parts of us were smarter than the whole. Or dumber, much dumber. I felt sorry for those parts, worn and red and working away down there when all we wanted was to cry. I was sad, patient, and careful with her, but very connected, impossibly close, and as I got closer I could hear her breathing with me. This was undeniably an activity in which we both excelled. We came at the same moment, kablammo, which of course I'd read about in dirty magazines as a youth, and had imagined but never in my life experienced until that instant." (pp. 213-214.)

I don't care if it's meant to be funny, or ironic, or what one of the reviewers called writing sex with "such verisimilitude you might think you've slept with him." I think it should be nominated for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award for 2017, myself.

We're done here. But you won't forget your help, will you? Please knock the next novel of this kind out of my hands. Thank you.

*If anyone ever tells me, again, that "nothing really happens" in Anne Tyler novels, I am going to punish them by suggesting they read this novel right away.

Friday Fun: A link proving I've spent way too much time thinking about the Poldark series.

Welcome to a special Friday edition of Citizen Reader!

Remember a while back when I couldn't stop talking about Winston Graham's "Poldark" series? The historical fiction series set in 1700s Cornwall that actually blew my mind the first time I read them? (And continue to do so, every time I re-read them?) Well, here's a link to a guest article I wrote for Anglotopia, proving once and for all that I spend TOO MUCH time thinking about the Poldark saga:

A Tale of Three Poldarks

In it I discuss the original twelve-book series. And the 1975 TV adaptation. And the 2015 adaptation. So you'd think all of that would be enough Poldark, wouldn't you? However, let me assure you: there will never be enough Poldark.

Happy weekend, all.

Officially off the reading rails.

The other day I tried to pick up my holds at the library and was stopped at the self-checkout when it informed me that I had 100 items checked out and couldn't take any more. This was a problem, as I still had three holds to check out.

So I moseyed to the checkout desk (what's odd was that I almost NEVER use self-checkout; I loathe and despise self-help machines, but I was just ducking in by myself and thought, well, I can try self-check this one time--see how that worked out for me?) and they very nicely let me take out the three additional books. Yay for human workers! Our machine overlords clearly were not going to override the system for me, but the librarians did.

Wild krattsBut the point is: 103 items (plus a few on Mr. CR's card). And my house looks it. There are picture books, kids' sports books, novels, adult nonfiction books, and DVDs on every single surface around here. Ever since my eye has felt a little better I have just been pounding through any kind of reading material I can find. Add to that the two little boys demanding I order and pick up more books and DVDs for them ("Mom! More basketball books! Mom! More car books! Mom! Wild Kratts DVDs, STAT!"), and the fact that I'm taking Spanish language lessons and am now checking out Spanish CDs and kids' books, and it all adds up to one full library card.

Of course the obvious answer is to get CRjr his own card, but frankly, I don't have the energy to monitor two cards' worth of materials. So we will just have to streamline a bit.

What's also weird in this reading bacchanalia is that I don't really have one book I want to review today. In the past week I've skimmed a book on Dr. Who (Dr. Who the Doctor: His Life and Times), two books on reading lists and suggestions (Book Lust and The Novel Cure), a book on race that I really don't want to talk about because it's just too depressing and I can't figure out a way to talk about it without someone yelling at me for something, because that is how we don't talk about race in this country (The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America), a frothy romance (The Royal We), and listened to several intro Spanish CDs ("Hola. Que tal?" "Hello. What's happening?"). Oh, and did I mention I'm binging on British TV? Have you seen this series Line of Duty? It is UNBELIEVABLE.

Okay. I will try to be more focused next week. Really.

Reading notes: July 2017.

On Monday I was so busy whining about the demise of EarlyWord that I forgot to include my usual weekly reading notes in the Citizen Reading report, so I thought I'd put them here.

I forget exactly why I got Peter Coughter's The Art of the Pitch: Persuasion and Presentation Skills that Win Business from the library, but I suspect it is because I am always interested in books about how to give presentations (enough so that I wrote one) and how to sell, because I am a terrible salesperson. I only skimmed this one, but I have to say I think it is one of the best and most succinct books on good public speaking that I've seen. You wouldn't even have to read the whole book; just read the first chapter: "Everything Is a Presentation." I particularly liked the list of characteristics of great presenters and their presentations, things like "It's a conversation, only you're doing most of the talking."* That does not mean you get to be boring or pontificate, it means, as Coughter explains, "We've all been there. Sitting in a meeting, praying for it to end while the speaker drones on about something that is apparently important to him, but of no interest to us. It might have been okay if he wasn't so stiff, so stilted, so 'professional.' Caught up in his own world. Lecturing us.

Don't be that guy. I can't say this strongly enough. Just talk with us. The best presenters know this, and that's how they present." (p. 16.)

That last line is the beginning, middle, and end of good public speaking. Coughter adds more bullet points, of course ("be yourself," "tell stories," "know your stuff," etc.) but I think his suggestion to just TALK with the people you present to is never given enough emphasis in other public speaking books.

Sharon Weinberger, The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency that Changed the World. I'm about thirty pages in to this one, and it's interesting, but I'm just not in the mood right now. Already I've learned that DARPA really began with the mission to move America ahead in the space race, and when they lost that mandate shortly after they were formed, they turned to investigating anti-insurgency during the Vietnam War. I'll definitely want to get this one back someday.

Nick Westergaard, Get Scrappy: Smarter Digital Marketing for Businesses Big and Small. I am interested in digital marketing, even though I really have no idea how to do anything digital. I've also always been weirdly interested in marketing from a completely detached viewpoint. I don't really want to DO marketing but I find it a fascinating subject--how do people market and sell to us? How do we sell to others? So I snap up marketing books like I used to snap up dating books--I wasn't any good at dating either but found the whole process interesting from a sociological standpoint. But this book doesn't really seem to offer anything new, and it takes too long to get there. And ever since my eye went wonky this spring, I find myself asking, is this book worth wasting my waning vision on? No? Moving on.

Sophie Kinsella, I've Got Your Number. Total chick-lit fluff, but AWESOME chick-lit fluff, and set in London to boot.  A million times better than her Shopaholic series; many, many thanks to my friend who suggested I read this one.

*Full disclosure: In my experience, this is spot-on. I try to be a good listener, but let's face it, I like to hold forth. For an introverted control freak like myself giving talks and presentations is the most fun thing ever, because I get to interact with people for a useful purpose, and I get to mostly direct the conversation. Ah, that's the sweet spot.

A tale of two novels.

Swimming lessonsI got and read Claire Fuller's novel Swimming Lessons because somewhere I read that it was a good book about a marriage (or, as the jacket copy promises, it explores "the mysterious truths of a passionate and troubled marriage"). I have been burned by this interest before, but I almost always look at novels and nonfiction that are primarily about marriage.

And it was okay. I read the whole thing, and I wondered vaguely about the lives of the characters, but when I finished it I didn't have a real strong feeling about it one way or the other. At points I was unsure what had happened, or what the author meant by some things, and, as I told Mr. CR, "You know, in all of modern literary fiction lately I feel like I am just guessing at what happened or what the author meant." And I do not like that feeling. Sure, I'm a lazy reader, but sometimes I just like to feel like I get the whole story the author is telling.

I was almost off of novels for a while, but then I remembered that I had Jami Attenberg's new novel All Grown Up home from the library. I almost took it back sight unseen, but then I remembered my reading experience that had been her earlier novel, The Middlesteins. I read it during one of my non-blogging periods, but I should have written about it later: I loved it.

So I read the first fifty pages or so of All Grown Up, and I was confused a bit by who was talking and who the names at the heads of the chapters were referring to (see earlier: I am a lazy reader), and I thought, well, it's no The Middlesteins. But I felt I owed it to Jami Attenberg to stick with it.

All grown upAnd somewhere in the middle it did two things: First, it kicked me in the heart. Then, it made me do that thing I do where I don't really sob, but I pause from the text and I put my hand to my face and I look around a bit and I try not to cry.

Look, it's not a big profound novel about love.* It doesn't particularly reveal any truths, passionate or otherwise. But, goddamnit, do I love Jami Attenberg's characters. They're nothing like me, particularly her main female characters, and yet I LOVE them. I love their voices, which sometimes say such simple and heartbreaking things. Because you know what? Life is kind of heartbreaking in its simplicity. It is hard to get along with people. It is hard to care for people with sicknesses. It is hard to not know what you want and have weaknesses and it is very, very hard to get old. It is hard, in short, to be all grown up.

Just read it, okay? How can you not like a main character like Andrea Bern, who has a number of (arguably) unhealthy relationships with men, and yet can say things like this after a tryst with a lover:

"That was two years ago. I haven't seen Alex since, though sometimes we text, and once he asked me to send him a naked picture, and I laughed and laughed, so for that I thank him, because who doesn't need a good laugh? (p. 51.)

Because yes, that should be the response of all women when asked to send a man a naked picture. Laughter.

And here she is, conversing with her therapist:

"ME: My mother is leaving me and moving to New Hampshire.

THERAPIST: And how does that make you feel?

ME: It makes me feel like she doesn't love me.

THERAPIST: Hasn't she proved to you she loves you already?

ME: How?

THERAPIST: By caring for you, nurturing you, supporting you, raising you to be the person you are today.

ME: All of that comprises a rational argument but can I just ask you a question?


ME: Whose side are you on, anyway?" (p. 65.)

So: a tale of two novels. The first made me say "meh" and the second made me re-start it all over again when I had just finished it, and I NEVER do that. Go read something, anything, by Jami Attenberg. Okay? Okay.

*And it's not perfect, but mostly its flaws are tiny and forgivable. Its cover, though, which looks like Chick Lit Covers 101? I hate the cover.

Friday List: All the things that are wrong with Curtis Sittenfeld's "Eligible."

Well, it's Friday, so I'm doing a list, but it's not a list of book lists. (The ol' Interwebs seemed very devoid of book lists this week.)

Instead I've decided to take a break from nonfiction and list All the Things That Are Wrong with Curtis Sittenfeld's New Novel Eligible.

EligibleThe context: Eligible is a modern take on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and of course, because I am addicted to all things Jane Austen, I had to read it. I had it from the library and was bored just looking at it for some reason, so I took it back. And then a friend of mine read it and demanded that I read it also so we could talk about it. (This list's for you, hon, as an opening salvo.)

It was not really fair of me to read this book, because I have never been a fan of Curtis Sittenfeld, who had big hits in her novels Prep and American Wife, both of which bored me to tears.* So, there's your backstory.

1. Sittenfeld has made our heroines, Jane and Lizzy Bennet, forty and thirty-eight, respectively. Okay, sure. She's updating it, she can do what she wants. But making the sisters older makes this a different story (in the original, Lizzy, by her own admission, "is not yet one-and-twenty," and Jane is slightly older). It makes it, in fact, Persuasion, where Anne Elliot is considered old at twenty-eight. In Pride & Prejudice, no one was really thinking (yet) that the girls were poor marriage material because they were too old.

2. Sittenfeld has set the book in Cincinnati, which is fine, actually. I like the American setting and I love me a good Midwestern city. But is she trying to make it the drabbest city ever? The city where the only landmark of note is a chili restaurant? For all the interest she shows in actually showing Cincinnati she could have set this book anywhere. Or nowhere.

3. In the original, it seemed like Lizzy's and Jane's (and the three other Bennet girls') father was, you know, various things. Suffering a bit, maybe, for picking a pretty wife who could have used a bit more going on upstairs. He seems a bit standoffish. Lazy, most likely. And definitely funny. In this one he just seems mean.**

4. Okay, Sittenfeld, other characters constantly commenting on the ST (sexual tension) between Lizzy and Darcy doesn't actually make for ST between Lizzy and Darcy. There is none. And can we stop using the abbreviation ST? It sounds like a terrible tagline to convince people that getting herpes is fun or something: "Herpes: Putting the ST back in STDs!"

5. Yes, yes, we get it, this is modern times, Jane has sex with Bingley on the first date and Lizzy and Darcy realize they are made for each other while engaging in frequent "hate sex." Related to Number 4: for the amount of hate sex and ST that supposedly goes on in this book, it is the least sexy and least ST-y book I have ever read in my life.

6. One of the most fun characters of all time, bossy old lady and grouch Catherine de Bourgh, appears here as a feminist icon who Lizzy interviews for work, and has no connection to either her or Darcy.

7. The chapters veer oddly from being one page long to fifteen or more. The book also feels about 100 pages too long. Editor? Was there an editor involved?

8. The title, "Eligible," comes from the fact that Chip Bingley (Jane's intended) appeared on a "The Bachelor"-like show called "Eligible." I cannot comment on this ridiculous subplot, as by the time I came to the last hundred or so pages of the book and it seemed to focus almost entirely on the minutiae of filming such a show, with both Jane and Chip (and the rest of the Bennet family) appearing on it, I couldn't stand the boredom anymore and just started skimming.

9. The twist concerning Lydia's marriage actually makes Lydia seem like an open-minded and likable person. That does not seem like the Lydia Bennet in the original. I'm just saying.

Bleah. Bleah bleah bleah. Of course, Sittenfeld is a critical darling, so you can read more positive reviews of this book here*** and here, if you are so inclined.

*In all fairness, I didn't get far enough into Prep to even say that I've read it. I think I got about twenty pages in and realized I didn't care one iota about one word of it I'd read, and took it back to the library.

**Although he was the source of the one line that made me laugh in this novel, when he and Lizzy are at a doctor's appointment: "'Fred!' the nurse said, though they had never met. 'How are we today?'

Reading the nurse's name tag, Mr. Bennet replied with fake enthusiasm. 'Bernard! We're mourning the death of manners and the rise of overly familiar discourse. How are you?'" (p. 82.) You're welcome. That's the only exchange in the entire book that seems vaguely reminiscent of Austen's flair for the funny.

***In this article I learned that Cincinnati is actually the author's hometown. I honestly would never have guessed.

Note to literary fiction authors.

Anatomy of Dreams
by Chloe Benjamin and Chloe Krug BenjaminTrade Paperback

And here it is: I don't really need all of my novels to turn into a thriller about halfway through.

Now sure, I know that thrillers are hot and are what is selling these days. But lately it seems like whatever novel I start always has some big sinister twist in the middle, and I really don't need that. Because here's the thing: I'm older now, and I realize I don't really need all that much excitement. To me life itself is the big thriller. And the sinister twist in the middle? Yeah, it's called middle age, and I'm going to be busy for a while seeing if that ends well*, so in the meantime I'd just like to read a good book about some human relationships that I don't have to be in.

The book that made me think that just lately was Chloe Benjamin's The Anatomy of Dreams. Here's some of the copy from the back: "It's 1998, and Sylvie Patterson, a bookish student at a Northern California boarding school, falls in love with a spirited, elusive classmate named Gabe. Gabe is a protege of their charismatic headmaster, Dr. Adrian Keller, a scientist who has staked his career on the therapeutic potential of lucid dreaming...Years later, Sylvie decides to follow Gabe--now a fierce devotee of Keller and his cause--and they assume a peculiar, nocturnal existence, traveling from the redwood forests of Eureka to the New England coast."

Now, that wouldn't make you think that the book was particularly thriller-ish, would you? Maybe a bit coming of age, maybe a bit love triangle-y or weirdly co-dependent, but not necessarily a thriller. It wasn't badly done, it just wasn't quite what I was expecting. I suppose I should have known it probably wouldn't be my cuppa when I saw the blurb from Lorrie Moore on it. I am no fan of Lorrie Moore.

But what about you? Finding that every novel you pick up these days is trying to be noir-ish? Or is that just me?

*And by ends well I mean I hope my middle age is followed by an old age that is just long enough and no longer. You know what I'm saying? That's not too much to ask, is it?

The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Water Knife
by National Park Service and National Park ServiceHardcover

So, just a couple of months ago, I was thinking about dystopian novels. What I thought was, someone should write a dystopian novel that looks a lot like our society does now, but just carries all our boring old unsexy problems to their logical and horrifying conclusions. You know, like the unsexy problem of how our health care costs in this country are going to bury us all alive. (I think I actually had this thought after trying to figure out health insurance plans and medical bills.)

And, lo and behold, Paolo Bacigalupi has come along and done in it his novel The Water Knife. But what's the unsexy problem he follows to its logical conclusion? Oh yeah, that would be the one where we're wasting the natural resource of water like we're never going to run short of it. Now, on most days my worries run along very small and predictable lines: I hope no one needs to visit Urgent Care today. I sure would like to make a bit more money so I never have to staff a public library desk at 9 p.m. again. I hope people I love who are aging and lonely don't suffer too much as all our times start to run out. You know, those sorts of things. But sometimes I like to treat myself to BIG worries about the future and the world, and the one worry I land on the most is that something is going to go awry with our water supply. (I'm not alone in this concern.) And not only because we need to ingest it to live. Primarily because I know that if I couldn't start the day with a hot shower, I would want to kill someone (mostly myself) all the time.

The book is set mainly in Phoenix, Arizona (a Phoenix going down the tubes, with its own #PhoenixDowntheTubes hashtag to match) and bounces in perspective among the various main characters of Angel Velasquez (the Water Knife himself, employed by a cutthroat administrator doing anything to ensure her own city of Las Vegas's water rights); journalist Lucy Monroe, who decides at a very bad time that she wants to write bigger stories about the growing ugliness in the fights for water, and Maria Villarosa, a refugee from Texas (very bad things have happened to Texas in this book's near future) doing whatever she can to survive between criminals and non-criminals driven to the criminal because they are struggling. And really? It's horrifying. And yet it ends on a very interesting, not completely horrifying note.

And it's well worth the read. I thought some of the characters' actions toward the end started becoming a bit out of character, but that's a minor quibble. I'll say this: I thought it was about a million times better than Lauren Groff's novel Fates and Furies*, and everyone fell all over that one as the best novel of the year. I think this book got robbed of that title.

*Every review of this book that I read said it was such an astounding take on the complexities of marriage. Yeah, whatever. To me it just seemed like some overblown, completely unrealistic, Greek-tragedy-meets-magical-realism literary fiction novel.

Holiday Book Buying Guide 2015: For the kid in your life who's read everything else.

You know this kid, right? You give them a three- or five-book series for a birthday or the holidays and they burn through all of them in about a week? It's hard to keep up with kids like that, when buying books for them, but on the other hand? What a great problem to have.

So today I'd like to suggest a nice little series that hasn't been talked about much lately, so maybe it's something the voracious reader you know won't have encountered yet. That series is Lloyd Alexander's Westmark* trilogy.

Now, of course, Lloyd Alexander is fairly well-known as the author of the Chronicles of Prydain series. And those are good books too. But this three-book series offers a bit more for the slightly older reader (maybe 9 or 10 to 12 or 13?) to get their teeth into. In the first book, the kingdom of Westmark is in a bad way: its king is faltering under grief caused by the death of his daughter; his kingdom is effectively being ruled by the evil advisor Cabbarus; law-abiding people are being harrassed for no reason. In this atmosphere the orphan Theo, a printer's apprentice, finds his life turned upside down when his boss's shop is destroyed and Theo is forced to run. While on the run, he takes up with a con artist and his servant/friend, and eventually they chance upon an extremely talented young girl/street urchin named Mickle. Adventures ensue, and all is most definitely not what it seems when it comes to who the characters really are.

There are some fights and, especially in the second book in the trilogy (The Kestrel) some military battles, but nothing is described in horrific detail. Characters die, and tough choices are made, but in such a way that it shouldn't be too much for the younger kids to read. The pace moves right along and there's some humor, so these are even books that an adult could read to a kid or with a kid, and not mind it at all themselves.**

The third book is called The Beggar Queen***. And of course you can't find these books new****, but you can certainly find them online at Powell's Books.

*Although I see that Westmark won a National Book Award. So perhaps it is better known than I think. But, it won the award back in 1982. So maybe not.

**I read the whole series in a couple of days and really, REALLY enjoyed it.

***This is also a great series for girls. Mickle, the main female character, is all kinds of awesome.

****I take it back. I just checked and you can find them new at Amazon. I thought they might be too old.

Not an Elinor Lipman fan.

Anybody who reads romance, chick lit, or women's lit (and I do read all of those, although mostly I end up disliking women's lit) inevitably comes across the name Elinor Lipman.

Lipman is a novelist with several well-reviewed and (I'm guessing) respectably selling novels to her name. I have always seen her name a lot, offered as a reading suggestion for those who like a bit of humor with their romance, and the interesting thing about Lipman is that she seems popular with both readers and critics. She seems like she would be a sure bet.

But you know what? I just don't get the appeal.

I tried to read her a few years back, and I don't think I got through the novel in question (or it certainly didn't make much of an impression). This time, trying to be fair, I thought I would read one of her older novels, one of her newer ones, and just for good measure, I would throw in her recent essay collection (I Can't Complain).

The Way Men Act, published 1992. Melinda LeBlanc returns to her hometown to be a floral designer and falls in love with the owner of the shop next to hers on Main Street, and then denies it for the course of the entire book.

The View from Penthouse B, published 2013. Two sisters room together in a Manhattan penthouse, although their surroundings belie their circumstance. One sister is a young(ish) widow; the other is a divorced woman who lost her money to Bernie Madoff. (And, oh yes, her husband was a fertility doctor who, ahem, sometimes offered personalized fertilization services to his patients.) They also end up taking in another boarder, an unemployed finance worker who they think is making cupcakes for his dates with women, when really they are dates with men.

God, frankly, I'm bored even typing out those briefest of synopses.

And I didn't find the essays all that scintillating either. They're short, and were published in a variety of sources, from Good Housekeeping to the Boston Globe. They center on a variety of family topics (including the loss of Lipman's own husband at the age of 60), the writing life, and personal foibles. And it's all nice enough stuff:

"My sister and I do solemnly believe--no, we insist--that each of us was, unquestionably, her father's favorite child, the shiniest apple of his eye. The argument goes like this: I was Daddy's favorite child. No, sorry, you're wrong. I was. We smile as we present the evidence of his devotion made visible. Finally, we agree to disagree, recognizing what a sweet and lucky argument ours is." (p. 14.)

But none of it really seems to have any teeth, you know? If I had to describe her succinctly I'd say she reminds me a bit of Nora Ephron, without the anger (and without nearly as much humor), or Susan Minot without the slightly more interesting grit.

Either way: I've given her what I think is a fair try, and I'm done now.